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Bob Dole's standing with Latino voters reflects changing Republican Party

“Dole was the face of the party at a time of nativist sentiment, and he paid the price for that with Latinos," says professor Geraldo Cadava, author of "The Hispanic Republican."
Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., speaks at a stockyard rally during his Republican presidential primary campaign in 1988.
Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., speaks at a stockyard rally during his Republican presidential primary campaign in 1988.Steve Liss / Getty Images file

In 1977, a Republican senator from Kansas joined the newly formed Congressional Hispanic Caucus as an “honorary member.” In the 1980s, he voted for amnesty for undocumented immigrants. In the 1990s, he ran for president while embracing anti-immigrant measures.

Such was the complicated legacy of Bob Dole — who died Sunday at 98 — with the Latino community. During Dole’s political heyday, the Latino population tripled, and immigration emerged as a hot-button issue among conservatives. While his national campaigns failed to draw strong Latino support, Dole’s passing is an opportunity to reflect on the politics of a Republican from a different era.

“He was a real leader in the Senate, and he was very effective,” said Linda Chavez, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, a moderate conservative think tank. She worked with Dole during the Reagan administration, when she was director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “He was always willing to reach across party lines, reach out to Democrats. He was the kind of person whose door was always open, and he would listen to you.”

Dole, a staunch conservative, is difficult to categorize by the standards of the contemporary Republican Party. In 1982 he played an instrumental role in extending the Voting Rights Act, and in 1983 he was a co-sponsor of the bill to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a legal holiday. In 1987, he introduced a bill in the Senate proposing a referendum in Puerto Rico on statehood. In 1986, he voted in support of President Ronald Reagan’s landmark amnesty program for undocumented immigrants.

As NBC News reported, Dole "did not shy away from a muscular use of government at home and abroad," supporting an expansion of the federal food stamp program, pushing the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 and sending U.S. troops to foreign conflicts.

Then, in 1996, Dole ran for the Republican nomination for president.

At the time, the Republican Party was going through a period when it adopted an anti-immigrant message, said Stephen Nuño-Pérez, an associate professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University. “It was the aftermath of Proposition 187 passing in California,” Nuño-Pérez said, referring to a measure that would have barred undocumented immigrants from using state services. “Dole was probably the first modern Republican candidate who was subject to that acid test, to show he could be ‘tough’ on immigration. Dole tacked hard to the right on immigration to win over the base of his party.”

Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign website warned about “illegal aliens” and “a flood of undocumented immigrants who sap precious American tax dollars and undermine the nation’s security.” As a candidate, he supported Proposition 187’s limits on educating children of undocumented immigrants. He backed making English the official language of the U.S., called for ending most bilingual education and opposed affirmative action.

While the approach helped Dole win the nomination, it did not help him with most Latino voters in the general election, Nuño-Pérez said, adding the campaign did not put much emphasis on Hispanic voters. Dole lost the election, getting just 21 percent of the Latino vote.

“Latino Republican leaders generally liked and respected Dole,” said Geraldo Cadava, the author of “The Hispanic Republican” and a professor of history at Northwestern University. “But to the average Latino voter in the Southwest or Florida, Dole was not really a known quantity.”

Some Latino voters were probably attracted to Dole because of his party affiliation, his military background and his support of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, but that was not enough to overcome what was then a damaged Republican brand among Latinos.

Cadava said the Republican Party was then “reckoning with two competing impulses.” The Latino population was rising — it grew from 9.6 million in 1970 to 28.4 million in 1996 — at the same time that the party’s base was coalescing around anti-immigrant sentiment. “Dole was the face of the party at a time of nativist sentiment, and he paid the price for that with Latinos,” he said. 

In 1996 Dole voted for legislation that overhauled immigration enforcement and made more people eligible for deportation. President Bill Clinton signed the measure into law.

In his later years, Dole remained somewhat politically unpredictable. In May 2016, he was one of the few establishment Republicans to endorse Donald Trump. “I’m a Trumper,” Dole told USA Today this year, while adding that there was no doubt that Trump lost the 2020 race. Yet in the same interview, he called President Joe Biden “a great, kind, upstanding, decent person.”

“Bob Dole truly had an amazing life,” said Mary Sanchez, a syndicated columnist with the Tribune Content Agency. “He was a member of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ he served in the war, served in Congress, saw so much happen, from the civil rights era to now.” For her, Dole’s legacy is exemplified by the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, which is devoted to celebrating public service and promoting civil discourse. The institute hosted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2011, for example.

Sanchez, a former reporter for The Kansas City Star, said, “Dole was in many ways what people wanted a traditional Republican to be.” She added that, among Latinos in Kansas, there is a “generational divide” between those who are old enough to recall his legacy and those who are unfamiliar with it.

For some Latinos, Dole’s passing feels like the end of an era. “Probably the only person who I would compare him to is the late John McCain,” Sanchez said.

Chavez said: “He was a warm and engaging person, with a real affinity for the Hispanic community. He had a very dry sense of humor. I think a lot of people who did not know him did not realize what a caring person he was.”

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